The Five Ideals (The Unicorn Project)
  • 06 Aug 2021
  • 2 Minutes to read
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The Five Ideals (The Unicorn Project)

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In the book The Unicorn Project, Gene Kim outlines The Five Ideals underpinning effective technology teams.

Locality and Simplicity

Simplicity is fundamental to elite engineering teams. Our organisation, process and code must all be as simple as possible.

Research has shown that most people seek to solve problems by adding more complexity, effective software engineers should understand that often removing complexity is the right way to solve a problem.

Excessive complexity creates technical debt and holds back an organisation. The difference between complexity and simplification can often be the boundary between competence and incompletence.

Likewise, changes should be as local as possible - we should be able to make changes in one place, without needing to affect other teams.

Focus, Flow, and Joy

Working in small batches with fast feedback allows us to optimise for focus, flow and joy. When we have a single stream of work, with minimal work-in-progress, we can focus on our work and prevent burnout, all whilst being more satisfied with the work we do.

Improvement of Daily Work

Extreme Programming holds "refactoring merclilessly" as a key value. This is similar.

Our workflow today should be better than it was yesterday, and our workflow tomorrow should be better than it was today.

We should continuously pay down technical debt and get continuously better at what we do.

Psychological Safety

Google studied what made teams highly effective in Project Aristotle using double-blind interviews and survey data. The researchers studied a total of 180 teams, including 115 project teams in engineering. According to Google: "Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found".

Yes, Google is one very unique workplace - but these results have been validated across the industry.

By 2019, the State of DevOps reports consisted of 31,000 data points, with a further 1,000 engineers adding their voice that year. The 2019 State of DevOps report "found that this culture of psychological safety is predictive of software delivery performance, organizational performance, and productivity".

Whether your goals are around software delivery and operational (SDO) performance and organisational performance, or productivity, psychological safety is essential for both.

DORA Psychological Safety

In organisations with strong psychological safety, people do not personally fear making innocent mistakes and are encouraged to take calculated risks. Leadership understands that professional engineering discipline requires strong communication, an “open reporting” approach and avoiding a “good news only” or closed culture. Professional engineering bodies (e.g. Engineering Council UK) reiterate this in their professional guidance on risk.

Customer Focus

What your customers pay you for should always be central to your business. The contextual things are important, but they are only important to the extent they help you deliver business value to your customers.

To be customer-centric, your goals must centre around your customers.

Geoffrey Moore articulated the difference between core and context in his book “Dealing with Darwin”. The context is essential, mission critical and worthy of funding; but it should never kill the core.


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